Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Who’s who of Indian classical music

By V Ramnarayan

Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer (1908-2003)

He was the pitamaha, the patriarch of Carnatic music. His singing was powerful, deeply moving. His profound scholarship never hampered his creative genius. He was a star in the midst of outstanding contemporaries like Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Madurai Mani Iyer, Musiri Subramania Iyer and G.N. Balasubramanian. He battled a gruff and nasal voice all his life and managed to produce grand music despite having to fight those wayward vocal chords every inch of the way.

Through that gruelling vocal odyssey, it often seemed he was pleading with God, even altercating or wrestling with Him as he struggled to overcome his handicap.

It could not stop Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer from becoming arguably the top Carnatic musician of the 20th century.

If Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar shaped the structure of the modern Carnatic music kutcheri, Semmangudi defined its grammar and aesthetics. Gamaka and bhava predominated while briga and swara jugglery were to be foresworn. There was no room for thrills and spills in it, crooning was anathema to him. There can be little doubt that the Semmangudi influence has been responsible for the dignity and majesty that true lovers of Carnatic music associate with it.

Born at Semmangudi, near Kumbakonam, to Radhakrishna Iyer and Dharmambal on 25th July 1908, Srinivasan showed musical promise early, when he was five years old. The village had no music teachers, and little Srinivasan had to move in to his teacher Sakharama Rao’s home at Tiruvidaimarudur. According to Semmangudi, Sakharama Rao was a saint, “though a martinet” when it came to matters musical.

Violinist cousin Narayanaswami Iyer who was his next guru once thrashed Srinivasan for singing a phrase that revealed that he had secretly listened to a musician from a different, unacceptable school.

That was only a short term embargo—until the young pupil mastered his own tradition enough not to be corrupted by other influences. In his grown years, not only did Semmangudi internalise the best practices of the time, but also encouraged individuality in his own students.

When Srinivasan’s adolescent voice broke, it turned so harsh that his maternal uncle Tirukkodikaval Krishna Iyer advised him to switch to playing the violin.

That did not deter the young man. He was determined to conquer his recalcitrant voice. He practised like a maniac (and in his senior years was to advise young aspirants to practise, practise, practise).

Srinivasan became a sishya of Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, who treated him like a son and denied him nothing by way of musical exposure. The disciple imbibed much from Viswanatha Iyer while accompanying him on the concert platform, but eschewed his flashy ornamentation and his partiality to Hindustani raga-s.

Once he made his concert debut in 1926, Semmangudi gained much support from senior accompanists. His progress was nothing short of phenomenal. He was at 39 the youngest Carnatic musician in history to be crowned Sangita Kalanidhi by the Madras Music Academy.
Semmangudi attributed much of the emotional depth and comprehensive understanding of every raga he explored to the great nagaswaram music he heard at this formative stage of his life from such giants as Mannargudi Chinna Pakkiria Pillai, Kumbakonam Sivakozhundu, T.N. Rajaratnam Pillai, Veeruchami Pillai. Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar was responsible for Semmangudi being invited to Travancore to help him edit, notate and publish the compositions of Swati Tirunal. Succeeding Bhagavatar as Principal of the Swati Tirunal College of Music, Semmangudi made a monumental impact on the Carnatic music scene in Kerala.

Decades later, Semmagundi was to be dragged into a controversy with Veena Balachander who attributed Swati Tirunal’s compositions to the Tanjavur Quartet. He was involved in at least one other major dispute, when he crossed swords with M. Balamuralikrishna over his claims of creating new raga-s.

Semmangudi was a generous teacher who trained three generations of sishya-s. Students who stayed at his home remember his marvellous alapana-s alone at night, usually after a concert.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Who’s who in Indian classical music

By V Ramnarayan

Palghat TS Mani Iyer (1912 - 1981)

Palghat Mani Iyer was arguably the greatest mridanga vidwan known to Carnatic music. He was the first exponent of this percussion instrument to be awarded the Sangita Kalanidhi and the Padma Bhushan.

Mani Iyer became renowned in his lifetime for the innovations he introduced in mridangam playing. For instance, he was the first one to shadow the musical phrasing of the vocalist or instrumentalist he accompanied on the mridangam, now the standard followed by every mridangam exponent. He not only reproduced all the subtleties of the musical composition on his instrument, but also stressed the strategic importance of silences, knowing when not to play as much as when to play. He adopted different approaches for vocal and instrumental music, and the various types and moods of songs as well. The length of his tani avartanam was tailored to the occasion, restrained and rarely a loud display of fireworks.

He was born and grew up Palakkad, Kerala. Displaying an early aptitude for drumming, he first learnt mridangam from Palghat Subba Iyer and Kalpathy Viswanatha Iyer, both local gurus. He later did long gurukula vasam with Tanjavur Vaidanatha Iyer, the doyen of one of the two major mridangam schools of Carnatic music, with Manmundia Pillai leading the other, which produced another great in Palani Subramania Pillai.

Mani Iyer accompanied all the leading artists of his era. His partnership with such legends as Ariyakudi, TR Mahalingam and GN Balasubramaniam was of the stuff of fables. A stickler for ethical conduct, he played a major role in elevating the status of percussionists. Even as a lad, he refused to trade places with kanjira or ghatam players on the concert stage—even if the other percussionists were senior to him—insisting that the mridangam be given due primacy.

He was an opponent of the use of microphones for the mridangam and the violin, and at one stage started refusing concert engagements where mikes were used, only relaxing the rule when he was satisfied that improved technology ensured the prevention of the distortion of the sound of his instrument. Constantly intent on improving the quality of the instrument, he was a passionate and expert mridangam maker.

Mani Iyer was a most sought after, revered guru. Among his many outstanding disciples two—Umayalpuram Sivaraman and the late Palghat Raghu—became Sangita Kalanidhis.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Who’s who in Indian classical music

By V Ramnarayan

T.R. Mahalingam (1926-1986)

TR Mahalingam was a child prodigy who started playing the flute on stage at the age of seven. He revolutionised flute playing in Carnatic music by reproducing on the instrument all the gamakas the voice can produce. Even Palladam Sanjeeva Rao and his guru Sarabha Sastri, the giants before Mali as he was known, played only discrete notes in a staccato style. In fact, it was believed before Mali that the flute was incapable of reproducing numerous ragas. He pioneered the innovation of lower register or mandara sthayi playing of the flute and new fingering and lipping techniques, besides a new grip. He redesigned the instrument using a thicker reed and smaller bores, to produce a richer tone. His flutes also had eight holes instead of the traditional seven.

Over and above his path-breaking initiatives, Mali was a great musician, pure and simple. His imagination was extraordinary, and he did not concern himself too much with grammar, which however was inborn in him. Raga bhava and perfect sruti came naturally to him, and his sense of laya made even a genius of rhythm of Palghat Mani Iyer’s stature sit up and take notice. Mali and Mani Iyer were a hugely successful pair on stage.

His father Ramaswami Iyer of Tiruvidaimarudur in Tanjavur district had not wanted the child Mali to play the flute for health reasons, but Jalra Gopala Iyer, his uncle and music teacher of Mali and his siblings, found Mali to be a gifted flautist in the making. Later, Ramaswami Iyer took Mali around displaying his virtuosity and getting him concert engagements galore. He was in short a meal ticket to the family. This probably explains Mali’s eccentricities on stage, tendency to cancel concerts without notice, cocking a snook at authority, his frequent headaches and “mystic experiences” and his alcoholism throughout his adulthood. Throughout a troubled life, his music continued to be divine—whenever he chose to perform.

Mali was a seminal influence on the flute in Carnatic music, with every flautist after him, not only his sishyas—Sangita Kalanidhi N Ramani is one of them—following his manner and style. He was phenomenon, cult hero, maestro and iconoclast rolled into one.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Who’s who in Indian classical music

By V Ramnarayan

Bhimsen Joshi (1922-2011)

The inimitable vocal music of Bhimsen Joshi was an amalgam of meditative depth, incredible taan-s, perfect laya control and absolute swara precision.

He worked assiduously for decades at making the Kirana gharana his own, incorporating the influences he had sought all his life from all the masters he admired, no matter what school they belonged to.

To many faithful followers of Bhimsen Joshi’s music, his voice, even at its most resonant, had a rare intimacy, somewhat reminiscent of the effect the voices of Amir Khan or D.V. Paluskar had on them. Heard live, it reverberated from the stage to the last row of closed halls and open spaces alike, its sheer power captivating the audience. In recordings, its almost paradoxical tenderness never failed to suffuse listeners with a feeling of other-worldliness. (For over a decade through the seventies and eighties of the last century, Joshi was a victim of alcoholism, which affected his music adversely).

A typical Bhimsen Joshi concert during his best years was a slow awakening from a trance, deep immersion in the music gradually unfolding to give way to incredible displays of immaculate vocalisation in three octaves, perfect control of swara and tala, and acute sensitivity in shaping the aesthetics of the raga that he explored to the hilt.

Born on 4 February 1922 at Gadag, Karnataka, and music-mad from early childhood, Bhimsen Joshi scaled heights in Hindustani classical vocal music that few could equal. All his life, he remained deeply committed to raga music, strongly grounded in its traditional base, exhaustive, intense, deeply felt, even as his music underwent many significant changes while he evolved as a musician.

His obsession as a child with music frequently led to his disappearance from home, as he followed passing bhajan groups as if hypnotised, only to be restored to his parents by friends, even the police. He eventually ran away from home after listening to an Abdul Karim Khan recording – a thumri in Jhinjhoti.

Bhimsen wandered from place to place in search of a guru, mostly travelling ticketless by train. After unsuccessful visits to several cities, he reached Gwalior after three months, all along entertaining his co-passengers with songs he had learnt from gramophone records.

Bhimsen then travelled to Kharagpur, Calcutta, Delhi and finally Jalandhar, trying to learn from several great masters. He returned home when Vinayakrao Patwardhan, a great exponent of the Gwalior gayaki, who had come to Jalandhar to participate in the annual festival, advised him to seek out Sawai Gandharva, Abdul Karim Khan’s disciple, staying at Kundgol, a village not far from Gadag.

The tutelage under Sawai Gandharva, lasting five years, was arduous – full of menial asks before Bhimsen convinced the guru of his seriousness of purpose – but rewarding. He accompanied Sawai Gandharva on his concert tours and also heard the recitals of several contemporary greats from all over India. His concert in Pune, on the occasion of the sixtieth birthday of Sawai Gandharva, in January 1946 was the starting point of his meteoric rise to fame.

His relatively limited repertoire of raga-s never posed a major problem for his followers, for his rendering of these raga-s was each time replete with fresh ideas and interpretations. His Todi, Darbari and Miyan ki Malhar were perennial favourites, but his Gaud Sarang, Suddha Sarang and Brindavani Sarang, his Suddha Kalyan and his thumri-s in Jogia and Bhairavi were no less enchanting.

A versatile, peripatetic musician who blended the best of north and south in Hindustani music, he sang for the purist and lay rasika alike, taming a magnificent voice to produce flawless music. His breath control was legendary. He loved fast cars and travelled at the speed of light, performing tirelessly for over four decades.

Who’s who in Indian classical music

By V Ramnarayan

Tanjavur Brinda (1912-1996)

T Brinda of the Brinda-Muktha duo fame was a torchbearer of the grand Veena Dhanammal school of Carnatic music, known for its unhurried movement and intricate graces. A vocalist, she like her younger sister and concert partner Muktha, was a musician’s musician. She could also play the veena, which she learnt from her grandmother Dhanammal.

After initial training from their mother Kamakshi, Brinda and Muktha trained for some four years under Kanchipuram Naina Pillai, and later their aunt Lakshmiratnam. Brinda absorbed both the intricate Dhanammal style and Naina Pillai’s fast paced music and blended them seamlessly into her singing.

Her voice was known for its nuanced microtones, clarity, depth and majesty, in slow or super slow speeds, plain notes or oscillations. Modulation was a key aspect of her voice production, sharper when she sang subtle, fast phrases in the higher regions and deeper when she sang sustained notes with karvai or reached down to the lower octave.

Her peers respected her for her musical knowledge and acknowledged her as an expert at rendering ragas that featured complex patterns and subtle gamakas, such as Begada, Mukhari, Sahana, Surati, Varali and Yadukulakambhoji.

She was a repository of Kshetrayya padams and javalis—romantic compositions rich in musical content—the songs of Gopalakrishna Bharati, Ghanam Krishna Iyer, Subbarama Iyer, Subbaraya Sastri, Patnam Subramania Iyer and many rare compositions of the Trinity.

Most topnotch musicians liked the Dhanammal school for these nuances, which they tried to incorporate in their music. Among those who learnt songs from Brinda were Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, RK Srikantan, Ramnad Krishnan and MS Subbulakshmi. Aruna Sairam, Rama Ravi and N Ravikiran were among those who became full-fledged students. Her daughter Vegavahini Vijayaraghavan was the disciple who accompanied her in concerts after the break-up of her partnership with Muktha.

Refusing to deviate from her musical convictions, Brinda did not record commercially. As her concerts did not conform to the Ariyakudi cutcheri format, she was rarely the busiest artist around. It never bothered her.

Among the many awards Brinda received was the Sangita Kalanidhi, the highest honour in Carnatic music.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Who’s who in Indian classical music

By V Ramnarayan

GN Balasubramaniam (1910-1965)

He was derided as ‘the graduate singer’ (thanks to his BA Hons) or the ‘talkies bhagavatar’—he was briefly a matinee idol in films—by the so-called cognoscenti of his time, before he stole the thunder from his peers and seniors, rising to the top of the popularity chart in Carnatic music.

Blessed with a wonderful, sonorous voice that easily traversed two octaves from the panchamam of the lower to that of the higher, GN Balasubramaniam easily reached out to huge audiences in the pre-microphone era. His voice had depth, volume, timbre and flexibility; it was a briga sariram with the ability to roll out swara phrases of different kalapramana and melodic texture with extreme fluidity. His was a brilliant synthesis of the vocal and nagaswaram styles of music.

Yet GNB, largely self-taught and a worshipper of Ariyakudi, his manasika guru, was a true exponent of raga music, fashioning an independent trail through the well-structured raga alapana explorations preceding his grand ragam-tanam-pallavi essays. Almost alone among vidwans of his generation who had adopted the Ariyakudi model of relatively brief alapana, he spent close to an hour on such elaborations, setting up ‘base camps’ of nyasa swaras on his step-by-step ascent.

A respecter of tradition, GNB was a brave innovator as well, bringing to light rare ragas and compositions. He courted controversy by performing srutibhedam or the modal shift of the tonic in his concerts, before the experts committee of the Music Academy officially endorsed it. Ironically, his schoolmaster father GV Narayanaswami Iyer, a knowledgeable and articulate patron of music, had been a vocal opponent of the practice.

GNB was an intellectual among musicians, with deep knowledge of Hindustani and western classical music and genuine respect for practitioners of these systems. A devout devi upasaka, he was an intuitive and classy composer as well, his contributions to the Carnatic repertoire often showcased by his disciples and other musicians. His fan following among musicians is perhaps unparalleled by any vocalist, and though some of the best of his devoted disciples died young as he did, the sishya parampara is alive in the surviving students and their disciples, as well as other admirers of his bani.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Who’s who in Indian classical music

By V Ramnarayan

Ali Akbar Khan (1922-2009)

Yehudi Menuhin called him the greatest musician in the world. The Indian government named him a national treasure. For long one of two artists every westerner identified Indian classical music with, Ali Akbar Khan was among the most decorated of Indian musicians.

A student of his martinet father Baba Allauddin Khan along with Ravi Shankar, Nikhil Banerjee, Pannalal Ghosh and other outstanding disciples, at his ashram in East Bengal, and at Maihar, Madhya Pradesh, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan mastered the sarod to reach great heights, though he started learning Hindustani music—at the age of three—with vocal music, and went on to experiment with the surbahar, tabla and sitar.

Waking at the crack of dawn and going on for some 18 hours of practice was the students’ daily routine at Maihar. In Ali Akbar Khan as well as his classmates, the regimen was to produce unparalleled rigour and discipline, and complete realisation of every raga taught. On him, his father’s teaching made such a profound impact that he continued to say till the very end of his life: “I can hear Baba’s instruction while playing. He makes me play. I do my riyaz on stage.” For he remained an eternal student, forever practising and polishing his art, even as his own school, the Ali Akbar College of Music in California, produced at least two generations of fine Hindustani classical musicians.

Ali Akbar Khan first went to the USA in 1955, courtesy Yehudi Menuhin, and was instrumental, along with his friend and partner Pandit Ravi Shankar, in introducing western audiences to Indian classical music. Though the brothers-in-law—Ravi Shankar married Ali Akbar’s sister Annapoorna Devi—did not hesitate to collaborate with jazz and rock musicians to make their own art palatable to the untrained western ear, his was an austere, uncompromising music, not a flashy compromise in standards. His ‘Music of India: Morning and Evening Ragas’ was perhaps the first LP of Indian classical music in the United States.

To the end, Ali Akbar Khan remained a simple, loving man, who cared more for music and his students than his numerous honours and awards, of which the Padma Vibhushan was the highest. To connoisseurs of Hindustani music, he has been the greatest sarod artist of all time.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Who’s who in Indian classical music

By V Ramnarayan

Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar (1890-1967) 

Born in the culture-rich Tanjavur district of Tamil Nadu, Sangita Kalanidhi Ariyakudi T Ramanuja Iyengar was primus inter pares among a galaxy of distinguished vocalists at a time when the modern Carnatic music concert was still evolving.

The Ariyakudi bani was recommended as the golden mean—his kala pramana was largely of the middle tempo, his manodharma essays were of moderate length and his swara prastara eschewed complex arithmetic despite his mastery of laya. He believed gamaka was the soul of Carnatic music and used his fluid, well-modulated voice to achieve that end, without indulging in excess or abjuring straight notes. His was raga music, based on the strictest grammar without ever making a show of it.

Ariyakudi earned his position of pre-eminence not only with his masterly music, but also by restructuring the concert format in the 1920s to suit changes in audience tastes.

The typical cutcheri was earlier often a five-hour affair featuring a small number of compositions preceded by expansive raga alapana and ending with an elaborate ragam-tanam-pallavi.

To Ariyakudi, brevity was the soul of music, and he tweaked the concert pattern to adhere to this ideal. This meant not shorter concerts but a large number of items, with Ariyakudi firm in his conviction that the manodharma elements—alapana, niraval, swara prastara—could be presented in relatively brief capsules, and that overlong expositions ran the risk of repetition. Continuing to be founded on traditional values, his concerts offered greater variety to the public.

The typical Ariyakudi concert started with a varnam—usually one composed by his guru Poochi Iyengar—and one of the pancharatna kritis of Tyagaraja. He invariably took up a suddhamadhyama raga and a pratimadhyama raga each for detailed treatment, followed by a number of kritis before he launched into ragam-tanam-pallavi. The length of each item was tailored according to the length of the concert—anywhere between three and five hours.

With his vast repertoire of songs of the great composers, principally the Trinity, Ariyakudi never stopped learning new compositions. Unswerving musical ethics ruled his career, nowhere better exemplified than in his refusal to sing Tamil songs exclusively under pressure from the proponents of Tamil Isai, despite his impressive collection of Tamil bhakti music, including many verses he had set to music. He was a towering figure all his life.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Falguni Mitra

By PNV Ram

ITC-Sangeet Research Academy guru Falguni Mitra’s concert as part of dhrupad’s rarely heard Betia gharana in the city’s Gharana Festival, held last year at the beautiful open air theatre Spaces near the Besant Nagar beach, in south Chennai, was a journey to the past in more ways than one. Among other things, Mitra had been the architect of Rukmini Devi Arundale’s dream project, Meera of Mewar, back in 1985 at Kalakshetra.

Mitra was at the time working as a senior executive of a British multinational in distant Ambattur Industrial Estate, and taught music at his Adyar residence on Saturday mornings. He composed some lovely tunes for the Meera dance drama, and it was a special experience to watch the compositions unfold, and his new found south Indian sishyas grapple with the challenge of overcoming their strong Carnatic background to make Meerabai sound authentic.

Falguni Mitra, like his father and guru, Pandit Shib Mitra before him, held a day job, practising dhrupad only in his spare time. In fact, it was his father’s stint as an engineer in the motorcycle manufacturer Enfield India, that first brought young Falguni to Madras in the late 1950s. Studying at Vivekananda College and later Madras University where he studied philosophy at the postgraduate level, Falguni delighted in soaking in the Carnatic music of what he describes as its golden period. As he was already an All India Radio artist, he came into contact with the charismatic vocalist GN Balasubramaniam or GNB, then chief producer of AIR Madras. Drawing his attention to the similarities between dhrupad-dhamar and ragam-tanam-pallavi of Carnatic music, GNB told the young man, “Carry on the lofty tradition of dhrupad,” adding that as he grew older, he would gradually shed ornamentation and go deeper into the music.” How true, Mitra was to find out over the years.

A memorable experience for young Falguni was accompanying his father in a lecture demonstration at the Music Academy’s annual conference in 1958 or thereabouts. By 1960 when he was a postgraduate student he was regularly interacting with some of the great names of Carnatic music and bharatanatyam. Besant Gardens, Adyar, was home to Kalakshetra and the giants Rukmini Devi had surrounded herself with—such as the great composer Mysore Vasudevachar, scholar extraordinaire Sankara Menon, and the iconic vocalist MD Ramanathan. Guests at his father’s home included visiting maestros of Hindustani music like Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Amir Khan—who used to stay with bharatanatyam legend Balasaraswati. The neighbours in quiet Kasturbanagar were treated to top class Hindustani music during these celebrity visits.

“Rukmini Devi was the greatest personality I have ever met,” says Mitra. When Falguni Mitra went back to Madras in the 1980s to work there, she remembered him as the boy she had met decades earlier. “My brother has heard your father’s guru ustad Nasiruddin Khan in Indore. I have great respect for dhrupad with its vast raga development,’ she told him.
Listening to Falguni Mitra’s music, Rukmini Devi was impressed enough with his creativity to ask him to compose the music for a dance drama on Meera she was planning. The genre was something Rukmini Devi had made her own, with the Ramayana series at the Santi Niketan-like grounds of Kalakshetra, her singular contribution to India’s artistic wealth. Working with Meera bhajans setting a few of them to new tunes was a huge challenge that Mitra approached with some trepidation, especially as there was very little time to prepare for the event. “I’ll give you a number of Carnatic musicians. Show no mercy, reject them if they can’t master the diction,” Rukmini Devi told him, and indeed that was the one serious problem he faced. After much hard work, the premiere went off without a hitch, and full of praise for Mitra, Rukmini Devi spoke of an improved production in the coming years, but that was not to be, as she died next year.
In the audience were MS Subbulakshmi and husband T Sadasivam, and meeting them led to yet another interesting collaboration for Falguni Mitra. That is a story for another day.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Lateral Teaching

By Nalini Raghu

This is one of the two prize-winning articles reproduced from the souvenir published during the Natya Kala Conference convened by Shanta Dhananjayan in December 2010 and 2011.

Everyone loves to talk about the ‘good old days’ and say how wonderful things were in the past. But change is inevitable in every phase of our lives, and change, like sunshine, can be a friend or a foe, a blessing or a curse. Artists are very good at adapting to changing times and continuing tradition. The very existence of our classical dance and music tradition is proof of this.

In the early days of dance tradition (Sadir), both the teacher and the taught had plenty of time at their disposal. Everything was taught in a leisurely manner and learnt without much timebound pressure in Gurukulavasam. The theory and technical perfection were not taken seriously into consideration, in the early stages. One always hoped to improve slowly with years of experience, while absorbing the practical aspect of dance into one’s system.

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Friday, 18 May 2012

Fine balance of kalpita and kalpana

Oli Chamber Concert 8

By Vivadi

A theme like Vanam, forest, is overt yet ambiguous. To arrive at a list of ragas and compositions to fulfil this challenge can be daunting indeed. But Prasanna Venkataraman transformed musician Savita Narasimhan’s elegant home into a dense forest of many lights and colours. The vigour and vitality of the team (Prasanna, Shertalai Sivakumar and Poongulam Subramanian) turned the performance into a cracker of a concert.

Opening with the relatively sedate piece Minakshi me mudam dehi without allowing the pace to sag was truly admirable. Niraval at the aptly chosen line, ‘Minalochani pasamochani manini kadamba vana vasini had not only bhava-soaked prayogas, but the unique fragrance of Purvikalyani (Gamakakriya, in the Dikshitar school), and the kadamba flower.

Prasanna’s Saveri alapana and niraval at Nipa vana nilaye (from Sripatimukha) were prolific like the dense foliage of a neem forest (Nipa vanam). This rare Syama Sastri kriti came like a breath of fresh air and Sherthalai Sivakumar’s accompaniment was fitting. Prasanna balanced the kalapramana of the concert with a quick Dikshitar kriti Sarasa sauvira rasanadi, in the raga Sauvira, which ended all too quickly before the audience could bat an eyelid and react to the contours of this hardly-before-heard raga. This composition is based on the kshetra ‘Pushpavanam’ near Madurai, and refers to Pushpavana-adhipate. (How lovely to imagine a forest of flowers in today’s drab world!) near Madurai.

Then came the piece de resistance. By then Prasanna was in his elementimagination unfettered and voice uninhibited – and his Kambhoji was a class apart. Apart from the grandeur and depth that we have commonly come to associate with Kambhoji, there was a certain mood of revelry in Prasanna’s handling of the raga, suggestive of the composition to follow. Sivakumar’s apt replies to Prasanna’s alapana and kalpanasvaras added gusto to the concert. A brief but beautifully rendered Sayankale vanante, the much loved shloka from Sri Krishna Karnamrtam by Leela Suka, describing Krishna and the gopis in the twilight woods as flowers bloom under the moonlight, was a fitting prelude to Swati Tirunal’s Rasa vilasa. This kriti from the KVN repertory, seems to have gone out of the concert circuit. Prasanna’s choice to sing this composition could not have been more pertinent, as it describes the merrymaking of Krishna and the gopikas of Brindavanam and the ecstasy of rasa-krida, actualised with a vibrant jati and svara. These dancing rhythms emerged so evocatively in Poongulam Subramaniam’s playful fingers, that the quick tani spurt did not seem short at all, but the conclusion of a full-fledged presentation.

Forests have been spiritual centres in several ancient civilizations. The forest has also been employed as a spiritual metaphor for inner conflict and dilemma as seen in Subramanya Bharati’s Dikku teriyada kaattil which came next. The folk motif was included in with the description of the mountain forest from Kutrala Kuravanji in Huseni, while a dvi-raga viruttam (Ponnar meniyane) became the quiet finale.

One wished that the sahitya, particularly in viruttham and tukkada, were sung more discernibly, and with a greater accent on the sahitya bhava, so that listeners could enjoy them even more. And Prasanna’s voice needs more power and clarity in the mandara, and more layering in the tara registers.

But these are easily remediable matters. What Prasanna proved on that day was that he knew that a keen sense of proportion goes a long way in ensuring the success of a Carnatic music concert. He maintained a fine balance of kalpita and manodharma sangitam which clearly showed his maturity as a performer. His improvisations matched the structure and mood of the composition to which they were aligned. Now and then, he was able to make listeners sit up with the unusual and the unexpected. And yet, though his imagination ranged free, it never went berserk. Most importantly, while the format of this performance had its own progression, it was not tangibly fragmented into opener, “sub-main” and “main”. This brought wholesomeness to the concert, commanded the same level of attentiveness in listeners and gave them a sense of immense satisfaction.


Minakshi me mudam dehi – Gamakakriya – Adi – Muttuswami Dikshitar
Sripatimukha virachita – Saveri – Adi – Syama Sastri
Sarasa sauvira – Sauviram – Adi – Mutuswami Dikshitar
Sayankale vanante (Shloka)
Rasa vilasa – Kambhoji – Adi – Swati Tirunal
Kuttrala kuravanji – Huseni – Misra Chapu
Ponnar meniyane (Viruttam) – Simhendramadhyamam & Surati


PRASANNA VENKATRAMAN (vocal) has been groomed by veteran musicians such Smt T R Balamani and Sri T K Govinda Rao. A senior disciple of Sri Sanjay Subrahmanyan, has been successful in forging a distinct identity for himself. Known for his fertile imagination coupled with clarity and classicism, Prasanna has established himself as a leading young musician of his generation.

SHERTALAI SIVAKUMAR (violin) has trained under maestros like Sri Sivanandam and Smt T Rukmini. His discerning and diligent accompanying style puts the main artiste at ease, and gives the audience much food for thought.

POONGULAM SUBRAMANIAM (mridangam) started his training under his father, Poongulam R. Sabesa Iyer, and had advanced training via gurukulavasam with Vidwan Srimushnam V. Raja Rao. He is known for his lilting and chaste style of accompaniment.


Naimisaranyam, Dandakaranyam, Kamyaka vanam, Dvaita vanam, Madhu vanam… 

These panoramic locations encircle our most loved, most lyrical, most prophetic poetry, the haunts of the legendary characters of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Could Vyasa or Valmiki have ever given voice to their vision if they had not dwelt in the forests?

Vanam hi rakshyate vyaaghrair vyaaghraanrakshati kaananam…

The Mahabharata has the wise Vidura advise the exiled Pandavas to bond with the same inseparable, mutually protective synergy as the tiger and the forest.

Modern research has proved forests indispensable to life on earth. Medical research warns of nature-deficit diseases affecting people living in treeless concrete jungles. What scientists, environmentalists and animal welfare activists demand today are values painted in prehistoric caves, resounding in Vedic hymns, carved on temple walls, imaged in poetry.

Whether Kalidasa natakam or Kuravanji koothu, our poets tirelessly describe many forests, each with its own species of trees, flowers, fruits, medicinal plants, animals, birds…They believe that wilderness is dear to the gods, the matrix of spiritual power… nature renewing creativity. When Carnatic composers sing of Siva in Badarivanam, Minakshi in Kadambavanam and Krishna in Brindavanam, don’t they see the forests as the centres of this soul force?

Dikku teriyada kaattil unnai tedi tedi ilaittene…

Yes, the forest can also be a misleading maze. But what is lost can be found. Walking through a kondrai vanam (laburnum wood) saint Sundarar (8th century) heard the cry, “Sundaram, ennai marandayo? Have you forgotten me?” Rushing to find its source he came upon a lingam in a dilapidated temple, spotlit by a sunbeam, in a shower of golden flowers.

Ponnar meniyane…milir kondrai anindavane…

Sundarar found his gold. And he has left it for us in his exquisite song. As have the other visionary composers whose voices we shall hear today. They knew that the vanam is vital to our survival in life here, and hereafter.

A matter of style

More on Oli Chamber Concert 7

By Vivadi

A Sangeetha Sivakumar concert is always something to look forward to, for she never holds herself back on the stage. In finding new nooks and corners to explore, she is unafraid to push herself one step further, even while performing. The opening sketch of Mayamalavgaula (succeeded by Vidulaku mrokkeda) was to serve as a primer to mood of the concert that was to follow; meditative yet lively.
Sometimes she slips, yes, but when she pulls it off, the effect is dazzling. The Reetigaula alapana that preceded Paripaalaya and niraval at tamarasayata lochana were perfect examples of this no-holds-barred effort. In trying to reach the tara sthayi shadjam in a lightning flash, she mis-stepped, stopped, and admonished herself with a “Hmmm”. Then, she picked up where she had left off and unfurled a swirl of breathtaking briga-s around the shadjam. Musicians of three preceding generations of her bani - Charumathi Ramachandran, M.L. Vasanthakumari and G.N.B. himself - would have been proud of that passage of music.

While a strong influence of that lineage is but naturally evident in her singing, Sangeetha’s music is her own. After the concert, in a brief interview for Oli, she acknowledged the advantages of having a defined musical ancestry, but stressed, more than once, that a musician must find her own style. “Who you are must come out in your music,” she said. The concert was a rakti raga treat as Reetigaula paved way for Dhanyasi and Begada was soon on its way. Subbaraya Sastri’s Dhanyasi gem Dalachinavaru, was sung with chaste simplicity which made it all the more profound. Melakaveri Balaji initially suffered at the hands of the in-house air-conditioning but soon emerged triumphant to provide great support.
Sangeetha’s music is decidedly less manic as compared to her predecessors, and the best example of that came in the swaraprastaram in Nadopasana in Begada. Eschewing the madhyamakala completely, Sangeetha focussed on the majesty of the chaukakala, taking us on what seemed like a leisurely, yet comprehensive guided walk through Begada’s idiosyncrasies - its hard-to-pin-down form and structure, its odd phrases, and the madhyamam and nishadam that don different clothes for different occasions. Each swara, each sangati and each pause was immersed in Begada. VVS Murari backed this up with a delightful alapana, just as nuanced and intricate.
This masterful Begada was not the high point of her concert. When it ended, she sang a few phrases of Todi and launched into an exquisite rendition of Subbarama Iyer’s Maane mayile kuyil kanmaniye. To those in the hall who had heard T. Viswanathan sing this superb padam as only he could, this unexpected revival brought a deep wistful joy.
When singing padams, it is important for the singer to be in character, the nayika, bemoaning the fact that she has not seen her mannan. For those eight minutes that she wept through an astonishingly beautiful Todi, Sangeetha threw herself into that role. It was a refreshing break from bhakti for Oli!

Sangeetha’s choice of ragas and compositions seemed to have been planned especially for an intimate ambience such as the one at Rasvihar that day and she was ably supported by Murari and Balaji in making this a memorable concert.

The concert

Vidulaku mrokkeda – Mayamalavagaula – Adi – Tyagaraja
Gopanandana – Bhushavali – Adi – Swati Tirunal
Paripalaya mam – Reetigaula – Rupakam – Swati Tirunal
Dalachinavaru – Dhanyasi – Adi – Subbaraya Sastri
Nadopasanache – Begada – Adi – Tyagaraja
Maane mayile – Todi – Adi – Vaideeswaran Koil Subbarama Iyer
Vani pondu – Kanada – Rupakam – Dharmapuri Subbarayar

The Artistes

Sangeetha Sivakumar, a disciple of Smt Charumathi Ramachandran, is a torchbearer of the GNB bani. Her trademark is a balanced approach to her craft, keeping her inimitable lightning-like singing in tandem with karvai-laden, soulful music. A musician’s musician, she is known for her mastery over the technical aspects of music. She is non-compromising when it comes to classical fervour and this adds an extra-dimension to her free-flowing music.

VVS Murari comes from a great musical lineage. He trained under his father Sri VV Subramanyam and continues to perform duets with him. Sri Murari has imbibed a fine style of accompaniment whereby he is a pillar of support to the vocalist but also shines as a complete musician on his own.

Melakaveri Balaji comes from a family of musicians. A disciple of his father Sri Krishnamurthi, Sri Balaji is known for his sprightly and sensitive accompaniment. With a career spanning over three decades, Balaji has derived great experience from accompanying several veterans and this shows clearly in his deft playing.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Benefits of Dance

By Rajyashree Ramesh

This is one of the two prize-winning articles reproduced from the souvenir published during the Natya Kala Conference convened by Shanta Dhananjayan in December 2010 and 2011.

A recent article in The Hindu about teaching Bharatanatyam for its therapeutic benefits to women and housewives acknowledges the importance of making dance accessible to all genres of participants. Even while dance continues to enjoy a professional standard, with the necessary training being imparted that grooms dancers for a performing career, such an acknowledgement coming from one of the stalwart guru-s of Chennai, who is known for the professional dancers he has brought forth, underscores the fact that it is equally important to make the same professional standards of training available to those who may not be aiming at or reaching out for the stage. It exposes the relevance that is being given to its practice in a modern world, where we are looking beyond categorisations and segregations. It is an important step in the right direction. This aspect however also poses challenges to teachers, both in the methods of teaching and the approach to dance in general.

Those teaching abroad have long faced these challenges. These experiences however I think enable refining one’s sensibility towards the relevance and essence of movement and expression as such. In countries where dance or the particular styles of dance like Bharatanatyam are not part of the mainstream cultural practice, one does not always have young aspirants, where parents are keen to send them to classes. Often adults of all ages enroll themselves. Also class frequencies are difficult to maintain. As a teacher one thus faces situations, where traditional methods of teaching don’t work in all the cases. One has to set priorities and negotiate possibilities, wondering if and how such students should or need to be put through the rigours of learning. Nevertheless the interest of these students becomes a driving and motivating force to teach them. Over the years one realises that it is possible to enhance their abilities, give them the benefits of movement and expression and help them acquire the knowledge in the art. But of course it also means that performing on stage might not be the product. The sense of achievement has to be negotiated from different or rather differentiated perspectives.

Thus we face the challenge of looking at the teaching methodologies and of the qualifications of a teacher.

Read More:

Balasaraswati on Bharatanatyam

By Sruti
(T. Balasaraswati was born on 13 May 1918. We reproduce interesting excerpts from her Presidential Address at the 33rd Annual Conference of the Tamil Isai Sangam, Madras, which was published in March 1984 (Sruti 5).

The Bharatanatyam recital is structured like a great temple: we enter through the gopuram (outer hall) of alarippu, cross the ardhamandapam (half-way hall) of jatiswaram, then the mandapa (great hall) of sabdam, and enter the holy precinct of the deity in the varnam. This is the place, the space, which gives the dancer expansive scope to revel in the rhythm, moods and music of the dance. The varnam is the continuum which gives ever-expanding room to the dancer to delight in her self-fulfilment, by providing the fullest scope to her own creativity as well as to the tradition of the art.

The padam-s now follow. In dancing to the padam-s, one experiences the containment, cool and quiet, of entering the sanctum from its external precinct. The expanse and brilliance of the outer corridors disappear in the dark inner sanctum; and the rhythmic virtuosities of the varnam yield to the soul-stirring music and abhinaya of the padam. Dancing to the padam is akin to the juncture when the cascading lights of worship are withdrawn and the drum beats die down to the simple and solemn chanting of sacred verses in the closeness of God. Then, the tillana breaks into movement like the final burning of camphor accompanied by a measure of din and bustle. In conclusion, the devotee takes to his heart the god he has so far glorified outside; and the dancer completes the traditional order by dancing to a simple devotional verse.

                                                                              *    *    *

The greatest blessing of Bharatanatyam is its ability to control the mind. Most of us are incapable of single-minded contemplation even when actions are abandoned. On the other hand, in Bharatanatyam actions are not avoided; there is much to do but it is the harmony of various actions that results in the concentration we seek. The burden of action is forgotten in the pleasant charm of the art. The feet keeping to time, hands expressing gesture, the eye following the hand with expression, the ear listening to the dance master’s music, and the dancer’s own singing — by harmonising these five elements the mind achieves concentration and attains clarity in the very richness of participation. The inner feeling of the dancer is the sixth sense which harnesses these live mental and mechanical elements to create the experience and enjoyment of beauty. It is the spark which gives the dancer her sense of spiritual freedom in the midst of the constraints and discipline of the dance.

The yogi achieves serenity through concentration that comes from discipline. The dancer brings together her feet, hands, eyes, ears and singing into a fusion which transforms the serenity of the yogi into a torrent of beauty. The spectator, who is absorbed in intently watching this, has his mind freed of distractions and feels a great sense of clarity. In their shared involvement, the dancer and the spectator are both released from the weight of worldly life, and experience the divine joy of the art with a sense of total freedom.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Music his religion, perfection his aim

By Sruti
(Sheik Chinna Moula was born on 12 May 1924 in Andhra Pradesh.  The following article, reproduced from Sruti 164, was wriiten by B.M. Sundaram and Narayanan Pillai when the nagaswara vidwan was alive.)

“It is only because of [Ranganatha Swamy’s] benign grace and the blessings of my guru-s and parents, I am what I am today,” says Sheik Chinna Moula.

Raga alapana is his forte— a fact that should make his guru of the Tanjavur bani, Nachiarkoil Duraikkannu Pillai, feel immensely proud. In the olden days, nagaswara players used to render raga alapana for many hours, mesmerising listeners rather than putting them to sleep. They evolved and adopted an approach which emphasised a systematic and elaborate unfolding of the raga. Influencing them in this aspect were the rules of the road which forbade [except in Tiruvarur) those given the privilege of playing the nagaswara during the procession of the utsava moorti of the temple along the main streets bordering the temple complex, from playing any songs till the moorti returned to the temple. This tradition forced front-ranking nagaswara vidwans, given a lead role in the processional music, to develop the ability to play expansive raga alapana-s and execute pallavi-s.

Over the years, the man from Karavadi, even as the name got transformed from Moula to Moulana, blossomed into a master in presenting raga-s replete with bhava, using well-punctuated phrases and elegant nuances. At his best, the briga-laden passages he chooses to offer are remarkable for retaining clarity amidst the technical dexterity. His kriti-rendering is anything but routine: he plays them with feeling, his clean ‘diction’ serving as dwarapalaka-s to guard against corruption.

A melody-instrumentalist is generally expected to know the sahitya of any song to be performed, although this expectation is not fulfilled in many cases, especially among most of the nagaswara players. But Moula worked diligently to fulfil this important requirement— never mind the extensiveness of his song-repertoire. In fact, he went beyond learning the lyrics, to study and appreciate their sub-texts and nuances. It is such keen study that lies behind his ability to nuance his playing and give proper expression to sahitya bhava. It has as well equipped him to explain the meaning of the text, as needed, to his students. No wonder, only one tiling is missing from his musical vocabulary: imperfection. His recitals always exhibit his fascination with a finely sculpted aesthetic presentation.

All nagaswara players, both of Tamil Nadu and Andhra, generally use the fingers of the left-hand for stopping and closing the upper holes— the holes closer to the air-blowing orifice— and the fingers of the right hand for the lower ones. Sarangadeva’s treatise Sangeeta Ratnakara, which offers guidance on this subject also in its passages on wind instruments, specifies that the left-hand fingers are to be employed for the upper holes. It is the sastra, then. But Chinna Moula has reversed the roles of the left hand and the right hand— perhaps without deliberation. He explains that this had been done earlier by some members of the earlier generation of his family and he had learnt it that way. He then quickly adds: “This has in no way handicapped my playing.”

Deviations from the norms in the methods of playing instruments have to be judged, at bottom, on the acceptability or otherwise of the musical result. Chinna Moula’s deviation, which is copied by his grandson Kasim, has not placed him in an unfavourable light vis-a-vis other nagaswara players sticking to the sastra; nor has it in any way compromised the technical and artistic integrity of the music he produces. For that matter, he is not alone in deviating from the norm: there are masters of other instruments who have done the same, like, for example, the renowned violinist and composer Kocherlakota Rama Raju of Andhra, who wielded the bow with his left hand and employed the right hand for fingering.

Friday, 11 May 2012

A fine Begada by Sangeetha

By TT Narendran

OLI Chamber Concert 7

Oli continued its mission of providing mikeless listening pleasure to Carnatic music buffs with a vocal recital by Sangeetha Sivakumar. Sangeetha has a husky voice that sounds audible even in the bass register. Her scholarship was on abundant display at this programme, which commenced with Vidulaku mrokeda of Tyagaraja in Mayamalavagowla. The brief sketch of raga that she sang at the opening was enough to confirm her gnana. The niraval at Kamala Gowri was executed well. Gopanandana (Bhushavali, Swati Tirunal) failed to make any impact. Sangeetha’s elaboration of Ritigowla had some breathtaking moments when her imagination was fertile. Again, Paripalaya (Swati Tirunal) was ordinary. Dhanyasi followed – a decent alapana but the kriti, Talachina varu of Subbaraya Sastri was intrinsically limited in its scope and came across accordingly. Sangeetha’s voice had warmed up by now and when she embarked on the alapana of Begada as the central piece of the day, she was in full flow and sang very effectively, especially in the mandra sthayi. Tyagaraja’s Nadopasana had niraval and swaras sung only in the slow tempo, followed by the tani avartanam. Mane mayile, the Tamil padam was, perhaps the best piece that evening. It was rich in raga bhavam and sung evocatively. The Kanada javali, Vani bondu, helped Sangeetha show her vocal skills.

Sangeetha’s voice did not always align with the sruti, with just a traditional wooden tambura whose strings were as susceptible to shrinking and increasing in pitch in the A/C room as the mridanga was. While her competence was convincing, the execution did suffer at a few places owing to tonal lapses. The string of ragas she chose were good but her choice of compositions could have been classier. VVS Murari (violin) displayed abundant raga gnana in the opening few phrases of every raga he essayed and strayed away as he ventured into quantitative and fast exposition. While accompanying for alapana, he needs to provide anticipatory tonal clues with a long bow, a role that his father, VVS, played to perfection in his heyday. Melakaveri Balaji had to manage with a recalcitrant mridanga that took the cool draft from the air-conditioner and merrily overshot the sruti. He was conscious of the sober ambience and ensured that he did not bang his way to glory.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Age is no obstacle to achieving artistic excellence

By Meena Banerjee
(Girija Devi turned 83 on 8 May 2012)
“After this recital I will abstain from public performances.” The announcement came from Girija Devi, veteran of the Benaras gharana, some time in 2010 in Kolkata.
“I was completely heart-broken when I lost my husband,” said Girija Devi. “I felt as if my musical life was over. That was the time Kichlu Saheb (Vijay Kichlu) organised a festival in Calcutta. He insisted that I come out of Benaras. I need not sing if I did not want to, but come I must, he insisted. Kishan Maharaj, who was more than an elder brother to me, also persuaded me. So I came to Calcutta in September 1975. That opened a new chapter of musical kinship. Later Kichlu Saheb, as founder director of Sangeet Research Academy, invited me to join the family of great musicians from all over India. This extended family made me a Calcuttan,” recalled Appaji (as Girija Devi is fondly called).
“Benaras is where my roots are, but the pull of Kolkata city is no less. I returned to Benaras on a teaching assignment; but came back to Kolkata as a guru with ITC-SRA. On special occasions I do go to Benaras, to be with my family and friends and to rejuvenate the unique style of our Benaras gharana.”
“Our gharana has a special method of treating khayal-s which you must know to understand thumri because both thrive on improvisations and innovative permutations and combinations of melodic phrases. That is why I try to give a glimpse of the khayal before I sing thumri-s in my recitals. I do not punch power-packed gamaka-s while praying to God; because then it ceases to be a prayer. It will sound like a command,” she explained in her heartwarming, simple style. “We all have thumri within us because it is an expression of love. A curt “Idhar aao!” gets transformed into a cajoling request if we sweetly say “E ji, zara idhar aana!” A lilt in the voice can transform the prosaic into poetry. To express devotion or romantic feelings you need a well-modulated voice and an emotive voice-throw.”
After listening to a beautiful recital by Girija Devi, I went to greet her on her birthday (8th May). Surrounded by her extended family of students, admirers, her favourite dolls (she has a large collection of dolls from all over the world) and colourful bouquets, she looked happy and contented. I wondered did she seriously mean to withdraw from the performing scene?
“Oh yes. To do sadhana for one year,” chirped the octogenarian thumri exponent, “only to come back recharged. There are many who are really good in singing thumri now. I have a strong conviction that I need this break to think and practice to burnish my art. Age should not come in the way of achieving greater artistic excellence.”
Only a person with the undaunting spirit of a child, resolute devotion to her art and unflinching faith in her capabilities can think like that.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Socio-Economic Issues of Dancers: Now

By S. Janaki
Paper presented at the seminar on “Socio-economic issues of Dancers: Then and Now” organized by the Association of Bharatanatyam Artistes of India (ABHAI) on 28 April at the mini hall of the Narada Gana Sabha in Chennai.
The morning session focusing on the “Socio-economic issues of dancers – Then” was overwhelming, giving rare and lovely insights into the past. Times have changed from Then to Now. The milieu has changed, attitudes have changed. In the session on “Socio-economic issues of dancers: Now” – we come to the ground realities.
Change is unchangeable and inevitable in life. All art forms have undergone change, are undergoing changes, and will continue to change. Dance in general, and Bharatanatyam in particular, are no exceptions.
Changes in the context of the dance, and changes in the socio-economic state of the practitioners and propagators of the dance form, have influenced the dance scene a great deal.
With the transition from Sadir to Bharatanatyam, the art has gone global. The economics of the dance is such that performance alone is not lucrative. So come summer, most dancers fly off to the West to the US, Europe, Australia, or South Africa to conduct workshops and also to dance. The foreign currency they earn, when converted into Indian rupees when they return before the Chennai season, keeps them going for the rest of the year. Bharatanatyam is now looked upon as a universal “dance vocabulary”. Dance has moved from communion to communication. Today, the dancer often takes on the role of a social commentator. Nothing wrong with that, as long as the tenets and standard of Bharatanatyam are maintained!
Now, there is no stigma attached to the dance. It is actually “fashionable” to learn Bharatanatyam. Dancers are respected, though male dancers have not found the going easy. The situation has improved of late.
Overall, we cannot deny that there have been changes in the performing space, changes in the type of practitioners and custodians of the art form, changes in patronage of the art form, and changes in the audience for the dance. Let us look at some of the factors influencing change.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Leela Samson quits as Kalakshetra director

By Sruti

The dance world has been agog for the last month with news of Leela Samson’s resignation as Kalakshetra director, followed by much speculation in the press about the circumstances leading to it and widespread demands in the community for her return to her position at the head of the institution.

Questions said to have been raised against her crossing the “prescribed” age of 60 and alleged procedural lapses in the decision-making process involving appointments and expenditure have been cited as the background for Leela’s resignation.

Praised for her several initiatives to expand the reach of Kalakshetra, transform its infrastructure and increase and refurbish its performance spaces, Leela has also been criticised for the same deeds. She has spoken of pressures and challenges through her seven-year tenure, and all of it has been written and spoken about extensively in the last month. Artists have expressed the view that she is irreplaceable as the institution’s head, while some have questioned the wisdom of fixing age-limits to such positions, and even scoffed at the idea of an artist being questioned on the basis of “procedural niceties”.

We are awaiting Leela Samson’s reply to our questions emailed to her, while Kalakshetra chairman Gopalkrishna Gandhi replied to our email on the subject as follows:

“… I have been getting shoalfuls of mail from enraged friends and colleagues and
rasika-s of Leela. I understand their feelings completely.

I have called a meeting of the Board to discuss the whole matter.

On my part I have felt that her resignation was a right and proper thing.

That does not take away from the fact that she is and will always be respected as a great Director for Kalakshetra to have had, who can be succeeded but never replaced.

I also believe that before long her association with Kalakshetra will revive in capacities appropriate for that time and enriching for the institution in ways we cannot anticipate now.”

Sruti carried a major feature on Kalakshetra and Leela Samson in May 2008 (Sruti 283).

Monday, 7 May 2012

The sound of music

By PNV Ram

The recent Oli Chamber Concerts initiative has been an enjoyable listening experience with the real quality of voice and instruments coming through without the distortion of imperfect amplification we have all become so accustomed to. Surprisingly, all the artists, even those who were hesitant to begin with, have enjoyed the process of throwing their voices with expertise so that they can be heard by every listener. The excellent natural acoustics of venues like the boutique Rasvihar at Nungambakkam have helped too. While listening to some of these concerts, my mind went back to the enforced mikelessness of kutcheris in the past, when power blackouts were the cause.

I remembered in particular how a young vocalist rose to the occasion and surmounted the challenge posed by a sudden power outage at Raga Sudha Hall, Luz Avenue. Visalakshi Nityanand managed to sing for over an hour when TNEB decided to strike early in her concert there and stay away for over an hour. The young lady handled the crisis rather well, singing with feeling and total concentration, and drawing repeated applause from a supportive audience. She was encouraged by J. Vaidhyanathan, whose gentle mridangam served to enhance the unusually restrained quality of the music, and Nagai Sriram, the enthusiastic violinist, apparently unaffected by an autorickshaw accident on his way to the concert.

So soothing was the experience that there was a keen sense of disappointment when power was restored, so rewarding the ambience of quietude created by the trio on stage. In a brief speech, the late S. V. Krishnan, known to be a committed promoter of unrecognised talent, referred to one of the compositions sung that evening, and wondered aloud if that might have been the way it sounded when Syama Sastri first sang it.

Appealing as that image of a great composer singing soulfully on the banks of the Cauvery is, the plight of the modern-day musician at times of power failure is quite pitiable, as he has to endure great discomfort in our stuffy, poorly ventilated auditoriums when the fans overhead stop. J. Vaidhyanathan had to face a similar situation the very next day at Sastri Hall, Luz, when he and violinist T. Rukmini accompanied T. M. Krishna. Krishna's concert was worse affected than Visalakshi's, as it started without power and had to face four interruptions along the way.

Sastri Hall is a small auditorium, and though it was not designed with concert acoustics in mind, you can at least be heard there, if you are prepared to belt it out, or thrash the hiding out of your drum, but in bigger halls, the task of the musicians is really cut out, especially the violinists, given the nature of their instrument. (It is quite another matter that many musicians can barely be heard without the aid of microphones). That Krishna and Co. rose to the occasion and they and the audience stayed on braving the inconveniences, including the noise of squeaking, screeching chairs now seemingly amplified, speaks well of both affected parties but is a poor advertisement for the city where a perfect music concert enjoyed in perfect conditions is a rare treat.

Every musician worth his salt has had similar experiences. Sanjay Subrahmanyam remembered a concert for Kala Rasana where power failed during a Todi alapana that became memorable for the thunderous applause it elicited despite, or indeed because of, the loss of amplification.

Sanjay describes the interruption as fortuitous because it came when he was at his most full-throated, having reached the upper tonic. He also fondly recalled a memorable power failure that brought out the best in T. N. Seshagopalan at a concert at Rasika Ranjani Sabha, Mylapore, some years ago.

The time has come for thought to be given to the designing of small, compact auditoriums with good acoustics, facilitating a genuine Carnatic music experience that does not have to depend on either amplification or the lack of it caused by power tripping. Anyone who has attended mikeless concerts at homes, attended by disciples of the musicians, fellow musicians and a close circle of enthusiasts, knows what a special mood is created by such recitals, how true are the voice and tone, how intimate the rapport between performer and audience.

Tailpiece: Where is Visalakshi Nityanand in the concert circuit?

Thursday, 3 May 2012

IFAS pays homage to GNB

V Ramnarayan

“Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this walked the earth in flesh and blood.” This tribute to Mahatma Gandhi by Albert Einstein could well apply equally truly to the great vocalist of Carnatic music, GN Balasubramanian, I became convinced when I co-edited a book on GNB released during his centenary celebrations with my young friend Lalitha Ram.

Having heard him a few times and been mesmerized by his personality as a boy of ten or thereabouts, I really began to appreciate his greatness as a musician and thinker on music after watching the GNB seminar conducted by the Sruti Foundation decades ago. My respect for him grew into hero worship once I started reading accounts of his life, habits and friendships by several friends, associates, students and relatives, as well as some of the superb prose he wrote during his packed life—all this during my collaboration with Lalitha Ram to produce Gandharva Ganam, the commemoration volume published by his family for the centenary.

I am no GNB expert. I like to think of myself as a listener blessed with good taste. Though I love his music, I am not particularly a fan of his music. I like listening to great music from him but also from some of his contemporaries, even his juniors and those young musicians of today on whom he has had an obvious and lasting impact.

But through the Sruti seminar and through several writings on him and by him, I have come to admire and respect not only his music but also his sterling qualities as a human being. I became his admirer in all his varied avatars, as a man of letters, an intellectual, an aesthete, a humanist, besides of course being a great musician, innovator and composer. Of GNB the complete man, I am now a total fan. He was incomparable.

I had the grand opportunity to speak on his musical career for some 45 minutes at the GNB centenary celebrations in 2010 by Indian Fine Arts Society. When IFAS asked me to speak again on GNB on 1 May 2012, I chose to speak of the genius of GNB as a thinker and writer in Tamil and English, even his prowess as a poet. I believe he towered over his contemporaries and successors in the field of music in this respect. In short he was an intellectual giant.

I was happy to be able to share some of my awe for him with a most receptive audience at the PRC Centre, T’Nagar, that evening. The young man who spoke after me, Vishnu Vijayaraghavan, who belongs to a family very close to GNB, is a complete fanatic of the GNB bani. He gave a delightful talk on GNB’s music as he knew it and practises it, though not as a concert performer. The memorial event concluded with an excellent vocal concert by Sreyas Narayanan, accompanied by MA Sundaresan (violin), KV Prasad (mridangam) and Madippakkam Murali (ghatam). Offering music of a high order in a deep, resonant voice, Narayanan sang a couple of GNB’s compositions with great reverence and admirable good taste. An altogether memorable evening.